John’s Gospel describes a pool outside Jerusalem called Bethesda where sick and busted people waited, watching the water’s surface for agitation. They believed angels stirred the pool, charging it with healing powers. I imagine some died waiting: dehydrated and rank, beside a pool they dared not enter before its sanctification. “And one day,” Annie Dillard writes, “It occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone.”
The day after John’s service, I parked in a gravel pullout beside a couple trucks and followed rough trails leading to a shaded fishing spot. Two men, hunched like cattails, were casting short spinner rods, careful to keep lures from the tight green tunnel web of brush and branches. I gestured good afternoon and continued upstream until I was out of their sight on the other side of a dogleg bend where low water had deposited plastic bottles and nests of tippet line in the flat sandy bank of Tinker Creek.
I removed my boots and waded in. The chilled current numbed my feet, blistered by a weekend in dress shoes. I didn’t count any of those river otters I’d read about, though there really were shed exoskeletons in the sand, nervous minnows huddled in the slipstream of a large rock, a clean smell of iron, wind pressing through alder trees. These were good, but hardly unique. I had found a creek that was similar to one in a book. It shared a name, a similar path and mineral content, but not a single cell elsewise. Pilgrimage requires faith in language.
A time passed before it occurred to me to look downstream. A reel there fizzed. Ripples disturbed the surface where bait had been sucked under.
It is possible, I decided, to stand still in the creek forever, blindly clinging to grief, barnacle-like.
John and I met because he was the sort to help people reach Bethesda, and I was the sort to worry for drowning. On the night before he got married, I watched him leap into a swimming pool with his young ring-bearer, seersucker cannonballs. I rationalized, but, John, mine’s wool. And those are the sorts of stories I’d told in the eulogy video. At the reception, I nodded and said Mmm as mourners spread rumors about heaven, like the desperate at Bethesda hurting for a breath of magic.
I used to deny the existence of holy grounds; either it’s all sanctified or nothing is, I’d said. But how many other waters had I passed in the Shenandoah Valley before stopping at Tinker?
Even so, I am not convinced of heaven or of a God who widows the young. I do believe that our organic stuff feeds worms; and worms feed robins; and robins, coyotes. And I believe our water must go someplace, too, leeched into the soil, evaporated, and rained onto some man’s bean row. Bodies, like creek beds, are merely conduit. Every molecule of me was borrowed and sculpted into a temporary amalgamation of a man. If the service of those parts may be called life, its witness may as well be called God.
We therefore scramble the earth, naming its parts to keep them, consecrated and absolute: Bethesda, Tinker, John. And once named, a thing is recognizable, if never fully contained. Sven gestures toward the ocean and says, “Ole, look at all that water.” And Ole says, “Yah Sven, and that’s just the top of it.”
And yet, if I remained in the creek, the current would lift and carry the earth from me, eroding my memory, until everything I once loved belonged elsewhere.
The reeling fisherman had maneuvered to a sandy place in the creek. I walked to the edge of the bend and saw his rod held high to guide a brook trout around boulders and snags. The other man scooped it with his net. With his free hand, he reached down and wiggled lose the hook. Cooked, I thought. But then the man lowered his net and offered the trout back into the creek. The fish hesitated.
There must have been a moment, as impossible as zero or seeing the past, when it was neither complete nor freed—a point in stream-time, after its first spring and before its dry bed, that I cannot name or keep. After the service, the trout whipped the pool with his fin and returned, back into the dusty water.
image: Tinker Creek in Virginia, via creative commons
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Ryan Matthews
Ryan Matthews grew up in Wisconsin and currently lives with his family in Asheville, North Carolina. He studied nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. He's worked as a reporter, groundskeeper, copywriter, and coffee roaster, and now he sells books at Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe.